GDR border system

From Academic Kids

The GDR border system was formed by a series of chain-link fences, walls, turrets and mine fields that was in place from 1961 to 1990, and was 1381 km (858 miles) in length, the entire length of the border separating East and West Germany; just as the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin. It was known as the "inner-German border" or "German-German border".

The route of the border between the three Western occupation zones and the Soviet Zone was laid down by the victorious powers after the Second World War, and did not change when the two German states were founded after 1949. It roughly matched the old state borders between Hanover and Prussia, Hesse and Anhalt, Hesse and Thuringia, and Thuringia and Bavaria. Continuing south, the border between Bavaria and Czechoslovakia was similarly fortified on the Czech side.

The GDR’s official name for the border was the "state border between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin". In the FRG, the term Zonengrenze (zone border) was also used.

The status of the GDR borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia was nominally open, these countries being "fraternal socialist allies" and fellow Warsaw Pact members. In practice, however, east German residents wishing to leave the GDR, even merely for a vacation on socialist territory, often faced tough controls and long waits for exit visas.

Meanwhile, residents of other East European Communist nations flocked to the GDR for trade and leisure when possible, since it was the most prosperous country of that bloc.


History of the GDR-FRG border

Until 1952 the border was only on paper; from that date, however, work was begun to close it. A no-man’s land was cleared along the route and 11,000 people living near the area were moved away. Towns and villages were split in two, members of one family often stranded on either side. Barbed wire was laid down along the entire length of the border.

From 1961 the GDR border was strengthened further to avoid mass migration to the west. Mines were buried and watchtowers set up; roads leading to the border were taken up. Dogs patrolled the area and automatic firing devices pointing towards the GDR territory could be triggered by movement. The border guards stationed along the route had orders to stop anyone attempting to escape by shooting them.

The most famous part of the GDR border was the Berlin Wall, built on 13 August 1961, cutting off the three Western sectors of Berlin from East Berlin and the GDR. At sections of the border near inhabited areas, similar walls were also built on the GDR side, for example in Mödlareuth.

The border was opened on 9 November 1989 under the GDR Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz. A chain of events was set off which led to the reunification of the two German states on 3 October 1990. The GDR border now no longer exists, but even today Germans still talk about the "wall in people’s heads" referring to conflicts between East and West Germans.

Between 1949 and 1990 approximately 2 million people crossed from the GDR to the FRG; about 200,000 people crossed in the other direction.

One of the more famous crossings was in September 1979 by hot air balloon. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families of Poessneck, GDR, built their own balloon, burner, basket and converted a barometer into an altimeter. Although the Strelzyks were left alone to make the attempt, the first attempt failed in June 1979, and the two families, knowing the secret police would find both, made the second attempt together and succeeded. Their story was made into a movie in 1981, Night Crossing, by Walt Disney Pictures. After living in several places in West Germany and Switzerland, the Strelzyks relocated back to Poessneck in 1999.

Border deaths

Victims were claimed on both sides of the GDR border.

People killed while escaping the GDR

Several hundred people died while attempting to escape from the GDR, mostly civilians. The exact number of victims is difficult to calculate. On the GDR border including Berlin, the Berlin Public Prosecution Department reckons with 270 'proven' deaths due to acts of violence by border security guards including deaths by mines and automatic firing devices. The Central Assessment Group for Governmental and Federational Crimes (German ZERV), however, has registered 421 suspected cases of killings by armed GDR border guards.

On 12 August 2003, the "13 August Association" published the number of victims of the GDR border guards as 1008, but with a fairly wide-ranging definition of the term "victim". This figure includes, for example, victims who drowned in the Baltic Sea or died as a result of accidents; suicides after attempted escapes; even border soldiers shot by escapees and Germans killed escaping over other borders (to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc).

Some famous victims are Peter Fechter, Chris Gueffroy and Günter Litfin.

Deaths of West Germans

A famous case is that of Michael Gartenschläger.

Deaths of GDR border guards

Between 1949 and 1990, a total of 28 GDR border guards and soldiers were also killed. Nearly all of them died on the GDR border; one died on the border to Czechoslovakia. Another, 29th soldier was killed before the GDR was founded. Of these 29 cases, eight died at the Berlin Wall. Most of the GDR border guards killed belonged to the Volkspolizei (People's Police Force) and the GDR border guards.

Apart from civilians fleeing the GDR, half of the remaining probable perpetrators were citizens of West Berlin and West Germans or US soldiers, and about half were deserting GDR border guards or Volkspolizei soldiers. One was a deserting Soviet soldier. In the GDR, some of these soldiers killed were venerated as heroes; streets, children’s camps, soldiers’ garrisons and schools were named after them.

From today’s point of view it is difficult to judge whether some of the cases really took place as described or whether some are simply propaganda. It is also unclear how many were cases of self-defence or even “friendly fire”.

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